By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; A13
The United States has developed an ambitious plan to help Iraq reorganize its civil service of 3 million employees, including promoting a decentralized system that establishes provincial authorities to run governmental activities at the local level.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) outlines the proposal in its request for bidders on a four-year, $180 million contract to work with Iraq's prime minister and parliament in setting up civil servant laws and regulations, and also creating local institutions to deliver services to the population.
Meant to assist civil servants in more than 26 Iraqi ministries and 10 ministries of state, the "Iraq National and Provincial Administrative Reform Project" is described by USAID as the "rightsizing of Iraq's federal structure." The agency adds that it "is a monumental undertaking."
"In the past, lack of GOI [government of Iraq] political commitment to carry through on reforms has jeopardized efforts to achieve targeted reforms," USAID notes.
Potential contractors are advised that they need to be aware of changes in Baghdad's leadership and must build "a broad and active Iraqi constituency" that would help hold the government accountable for reforms.
The current system has several obstacles, USAID has said. They include "obsolete and confusing" law and a large "number of employees requiring skill development."
Up to now, according to USAID, "hiring and promotions are not merit-based, but . . . based on political connections," leaving the system vulnerable to corruption.
The agency said a cross section of Iraqis interviewed on the subject complained that "Iraq is led by self-interested leaders, rather than by leaders who care about the future of Iraq."
Current senior civil servants are also resistant to change, USAID said.
"They do need help, whether at the federal or local level," said Judith S. Yaphe, a Middle East expert specializing in Iraq and a professor at the National Defense University. She is also a former senior CIA analyst.
Yaphe added, however, that she hopes the United States is not overreaching in pushing decentralization, since federal-vs.-central control is one of the issues delaying appointment of a new government - more than six months after Iraq's parliamentary elections. "Better us doing it rather than the Iranians," she said.
The new civil service proposal follows a four-year USAID-contracted program that put U.S. advisers in 10 Iraqi ministries, as well as in the offices of the prime minister, deputy prime ministers, Council of Ministers Secretariat [the parliament] and the Presidency Council. The program provided assistance in fiscal and project management, as well as human resources, leadership and communications.
A five-year National Development Plan was also part of the program. The Iraqi government wrote the plan, but "national leadership has not translated that strategy into a coherent set of national programs," according to USAID. It cited a lack of communication within the ministries and also within provincial directorates.
Although national procurement structures are being decentralized, "the planning process has not yet extended down to the community level," USAID continued.
Nor is there any clear mechanism to bring Iraqi citizen needs to the attention of provincial and thus central government ministries.
A new contract is meant to address such a gap.